Lebanon Needs a Niche in Middle East Peace

On 50th anniversary of independence, help from US, UN is needed to resolve challenges threatening country's future

THE 50th anniversary of Lebanon's independence this week is an opportunity to assess an experiment that once was an example to be emulated but now is cited as one to be avoided.

On Nov. 22, 1943, the first republic came into being under the National Covenant (Mithaq al-Watani), seen as the bedrock of an ``independent Lebanon.'' Yet it was not a prescription for nation building: It rested power with the various religious communities rather than empowered a national constituency. In 1989, after more than 15 years of civil strife and the bloody overspill of regional conflicts, the Taif Agreement inaugurated the second republic and served as the basis for a new constitution. The only difference between the documents of 1943 and 1989 is that the Taif Agreement made communal power-sharing more equitable. Both deliberately marginalized various secular and non-sectarian elements in the country, part of the Arab ferment that made Beirut the intellectual and publishing capital of the Arab world.

The political-intellectual divide is the paradox of Lebanon. It undermines chances of developing a viable civil society or a national identity and purpose, and renders fragile Lebanon's body politic. It also has planted the seeds for the political breakdowns that have allowed regional players to use the country as an arena to settle their disputes.

The wonder is how Lebanon maintained itself as an internationally recognized, viable entity. One factor: the international role of Lebanon's intelligentsia, immigrants, and professionals.

Lebanon's 50th anniversary is an opportunity to reengage the country's disfranchised secular and non-sectarian community and to plan its future. Lebanon has to chart its course amid a background of internal turbulence, regional ferment, and profound global change.

One such change is the redrawing of the Middle East map. The PLO-Israel agreement, signed on Sept. 13, derailed the comprehensive peace process that began in Madrid in October 1991. Although the terms of reference in Madrid precluded United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, which demanded Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Lebanon deemed it necessary to participate in the 11 rounds that followed.

Invaded by Israel in 1978 and 1982 and hosting about half a million Palestinians, Lebanon has a major stake in the outcome of an Arab-Israeli settlement. Unilateral and separate agreements, such as Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, led to renewed destabilization in Lebanon. Israel's invasion in '82 reached Beirut, forcing Lebanon to negotiate a separate agreement under the duress of Israeli occupation. This reignited the civil strife and ushered a new government that overturned the May 17, 1983, agreement with Israel and further reinforced Syria's strategic presence in Lebanon.

Lebanon was convinced that coordination with Syria and, after Madrid, with Jordan and the PLO, was the only course that would mutually strengthen each Arab party's negotiating position. With Israel intent on separate deals with each Arab party, the PLO-Israel agreement inevitably necessitated a reassessment of Lebanon's policy and brought about a long-awaited awareness that Lebanon's very independence was at stake.

THE PLO-Israel agreement is a particular challenge for Lebanon; it makes no reference to the future status of Palestinian refugees. It can be argued that Lebanon had this problem for more than 45 years and could bear it another two years, when the final settlement is negotiated.

But the PLO-Israel agreement does not envisage a Palestinian authority that can bestow citizenship on the refugees in Lebanon. The refugees ask whether they are to be permanent refugees. The Lebanese ask: Are these refugees going to become new Lebanese citizens, unsettling the delicate demographic and communal equilibrium, thus rekindling fierce parochial discord? In Lebanon, the Arafat-Rabin handshake raised questions and anxieties because it once again put most of the burden of the Arab-Israeli conflict on a still-fragile Lebanese body politic. The Israeli attack on southern Lebanon last July was a foretaste of what can and will recur. As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stated, the operation's objective was to prompt a mass exodus from the south to Beirut in order to force the government to discipline Lebanese resistance, principally Hizbullah.

Herein lies the dilemma for Lebanon, for the region, and especially for the US. For Lebanon, Israel occupies part of the south. Israel says that it will continue to occupy this region as long as there is also Syrian occupation. Resistance to Israel's occupation has been recognized as valid, justified, and legitimate, despite many reservations one might have towards the ideological tenets of Hizbullah and other resistance groups. Besides, Lebanon and Syria are Arab states, and the circumstances of Syria's presence in Lebanon, however distasteful to some, are different from Israel's alien occupation.

The US, instead of assisting Lebanon's recovery, maintains a travel ban, withholds landing rights from Lebanon's national airline, and accepts without question Israel's agenda in Lebanon while reiterating its commitment to its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

It would be a historic gesture if on this anniversary the US would remove its ban and insist on Israel's compliance with the UN Resolution 425. Then a range of opportunities for peace in the region will open. Lebanon's influence should not be underestimated. If the US is serious about a comprehensive peace, it must realize that Lebanon's continued independence lies with Palestinians being assured self-determination; this resolves the refugee problem.

Israel must withdraw from the south; this will remove the cause for armed resistance. In turn, with Syria's security no longer threatened from Lebanese territory, its presence will be removed by mutual consent. Spending on regional arms races would plummet, making it possible to rebuild and develop. Then Lebanon's talents once again could be mobilized, not in self-destruction, but toward a role that the Lebanese have consistently envisaged for themselves: harbingers of a new era of authentic peace.

If these are dreams, so be it. The Lebanese have suffered for too long. They deserve to dream. The world community owes it to Lebanon to help it realize those dreams. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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